Julie Roehm, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at Party City was interviewed by retail reporter Joan Verdon, for Forbes magazine. The interview highlighted Party City’s new partnership with technology solution – Bringg. Julie discusses Party City’s innovative pivots during the pandemic, noting how curb-side pickup and same-day delivery allowed for consumer demand to be easily and safely fulfilled.

When the coronavirus pandemic closed its stores, the Party City chain quickly set up makeshift curbside pickup and same day delivery services for customers who needed balloons or party supplies but couldn’t shop in the stores.

Store employees filled orders inside the closed Party City stores, and the company scrambled to find drivers who could make deliveries, including making a deal with rental car company Hertz to use its idle vehicles and workers.

While analysts predicted the pandemic would put an end to parties, Party City saw demand for balloon deliveries, decorations for car drive-by celebrations, and supplies for virtual birthday parties skyrocket.

“More than ever, I think people wanted to party. They just had to learn to party differently,” said Julie Roehm, chief marketing and experience officer at Party City.

Demand for curbside and in-store pickup and same-day delivery was so strong that the retail chain accelerated plans to automate those services. It has signed with tech-provider Bringg, which creates delivery and fulfillment software, to digitize its “last mile” operations, with programs that coordinate deliveries, alert store employees when a customer is arriving for a curbside or in-store pickup, and allow customers to get notifications and provide feedback via texts.

Party City’s Rough Year

Party City Holdco Inc, the parent company of the chain, has not had much to celebrate in recent years. Its stock fell from over $7 a year ago to as low as 20 cents, and this month it was able to regain compliance with New York Stock Exchange listing requirements by showing it could keep its price above $1 for 30 consecutive days.

Party City had a dismal first quarter even before the pandemic impact began. And it was coming off weak Halloween sales and helium supply problems last year that hurt 2019 results. The company has announced plans to close 21 of its stores this year. There are approximately 800 Party City franchise and corporate-owned stores.

It has changed CEOs, and the new chief executive Brad Weston, wants to see Party City evolve from a seller of party supplies to a provider of party experiences. He also wants the chain to own the balloon business.

That may be the best, and only, survival strategy for Party City. While Walmart, Target , Amazon and the dollar stores all sell party supplies, the balloon business is harder. Being the balloon leader gives shoppers a good reason to make Party City their one-stop shopping trip for a party.

During the pandemic, Party City has shown it can pivot faster now than in the past, offering things like personalized lawn signs for drive-by celebrations, and kits for virtual parties, with invitations and goodie bags that can be dropped off at guests’ homes.

Getting Curbside Right

If Party City can get curbside and same-day delivery right, it could be a game-changer for the chain.

The partnership with Bringg is designed to automate jobs that store employees were handling manually, such as taking orders by phone, or communicating with delivery drivers, and will allow Party City to handle more pickup and delivery orders more efficiently.

“If you’re doing thousands and thousands of orders a day from so many locations it becomes very complex,” said Guy Bloch, CEO of Bringg. “What we bring is the automation behind that, so it becomes much more efficient. The customer doesn’t have to wait in the store or at the curb.”

Bringg’s software, Bloch said, is designed to let retailers regain control of the last mile of delivery, and “to provide the same customer experience, with the same operational efficiencies” as Amazon.

As the pandemic closed Party City stores, the company set up non-automated curbside and same day delivery plans.

“We understood that it was really important to get out there and support our customers so we erred on the side of getting something to our customers quickly rather than waiting for perfection,” Roehm said.

With the stores closed, employees could perform the labor-intensive tasks involved with curbside and same-day delivery, but as the stores reopened the need for more automation was clear, she said.

Party City plans to begin testing the Bringg platform in August in select stores in Illinois and New Jersey, and then will roll out automated curbside pickup nationwide in August and automated same-day delivery at the beginning of September.

Texting Tech

What sold Party City on Bringg, Roehm said, was the ability it will give stores to communicate directly with customers by text, and to let customers talk with delivery drivers the same way.

Stores also will get instant alerts if something is wrong with an order.

If a balloon delivery order is wrong, that is an emergency for a customer hosting a party, Roehm said. “We now can hear about it instantly and do something to rectify the situation and support the customer in the moment,” she said.

Party City also got creative with its marketing and merchandising as pandemic restrictions took effect, promoting its personalized lawn signs and banners, and creating party kits and “summer camp in a box” bundles.

In a June 12 conference call, Weston said sales of personalized products were up double digits and that Party City had increased its share of the balloon market.

Balloons, so far at least, appear to be pandemic-proof.

“There’s nothing like balloons to put a smile on somebody’s face,” Roehm said. “Now that we’ve got same day delivery, I send them to people for everything.”

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Tags: Julie Roehm, Party City, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer